Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball and the Sacramento Kings' De'Aaron Fox are expected to meet as pros for first time on Wednesday at Golden 1 Center. Ailene Voisin The Sacramento Bee
Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball and the Sacramento Kings' De'Aaron Fox are expected to meet as pros for first time on Wednesday at Golden 1 Center. Ailene Voisin The Sacramento Bee

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Ailene Voisin

No rookie deserves Ball’s situation. Playing Fox will bring slice of normalcy

By Ailene Voisin

avoisin@sacbee.com

November 21, 2017 03:55 AM

UPDATED November 22, 2017 09:55 AM

LOS ANGELES

In the latest episode of the Lonzo Ball melodrama, the Lakers’ young point guard is trying to shoot his way out of a prolonged funk, while trying to have some fun and ignore the nonsense, while trying to grasp the nuances of this new and demanding and confusing NBA life.

 
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As the second overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft, Lonzo is barely out of his teens and already in the eye of the storm – though not necessarily by choice – and the target of seemingly every camera. He is coping with all of the above, all of the normal stuff, while dealing with all the abnormalities.

There is his attention-craving father and the ongoing tiff with President Trump, his younger brother LiAngelo’s arrest for shoplifting in China, a reality TV show, ongoing concern about his mother, Tina, who is still recuperating from a stroke, along with the burden that comes with being projected as the Lakers’ savior.

“Supposed to be,” Ball said with a soft smile, “but it’s an adjustment. The pressure is a little different. The fans wanting us to bring back the program, and to be honest, I think it just comes with playing in L.A.”

Sacramento and L.A. share a statewide bond and NBA ties, and now, the presence of two high-profile and inconsistent rookie point guards. Yet most of the similarities end there. De’Aaron Fox, who was drafted fifth overall, is being eased into the Kings’ rotation and able to commit mistakes in relative anonymity. Lonzo screws up or dives headfirst into a slump, and his quirky shot and stoic demeanor are subject to daily cross examination.

What’s wrong with ’Zo? Is he going to restructure his shot? Can he become an elite player if he can’t shoot? Everyone in La La Land wants to know. Everyone in Sacramento also will be scrutinizing the former UCLA standout when the Lakers visit Golden 1 Center Wednesday and officially tip off what is expected to be a long and compelling rivalry between two of college basketball’s most entertaining performers who happen to be friends.

The two began exchanging texts in high school after getting to know each other at AAU summer camps. The bond strengthened during their freshman college seasons, and more recently, while they hung out together during the rookie orientation in New York.

The texts have stopped – “Yeah, because we’re opponents now,” says Ball – but if you want to elicit a smile or lighten his mood, just mention Fox and watch Lonzo’s reaction. He immediately sits up straighter, squares his shoulders and shoots another grin, leaving no doubt that he is eager to resume the duel.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Ball, who is prone to soft bursts of replies. “Definitely in college everybody was looking forward to those UCLA-Kentucky games. I think we play better when we play against each other, when we trash talk, get into it, go at each other. You go out there, and you’re not thinking so much. You know? You go out there doing what you have been doing your whole life, just playing.”

Fox, who outplayed Ball in both their meetings last season, has been looking forward to their first matchup as pros as well. “We’re cool,” he said. “I saw he got a haircut! It’s all love, except when we get on the court. Friendships go out the door. We’re there to compete. But it’s going to be especially cool with all the hype surrounding us, and then with the Lakers-Kings, and all the history behind it. That makes it even better.”

Whether the rookies live up to the hype is another matter. Their performances have been uneven, and though they have had their moments, neither has been as impressive as Ben Simmons or Kyle Kuzma.

Fox, 19, has dazzled with his speed and shot-making guile around the basket, and his first game-winning jumper secured the Kings’ first regular-season victory. But he is shooting 40.6 percent from the field and 22.7 percent from 3-point range, hasn’t forced as many turnovers or generated as many transition opportunities as the Kings would like, and he has thrown an unacceptable number of lazy, careless passes.

Ball’s defense, by contrast, exceeds expectations. The Lakers argue that his instincts as a disruptor in the passing lanes and aggressiveness on the boards have been underappreciated. He has recorded two triple-doubles, including a 16-rebound effort Sunday against the Denver Nuggets.

Yet even moreso than Fox, his shooting has been abysmal. Ball is averaging 8.9 points, 7.1 assists and 7.1 rebounds, while converting only 31.3 percent overall and 22.8 percent from 3-point range. Additionally, he has periods where he appears tentative, and physically and mentally overwhelmed.

“I think all young players hit stretches where maybe they are not as aggressive as we would like, maybe get a little passive,” said Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. “Then they figure out, that in the NBA, you can’t have those moments.”

For slender rookies especially, the physical toll of competing against older, stronger, more experienced opponents can leave bruises. Fighting through screens, absorbing elbows, battling for separation on the shot, even pushing the pace is exhausting.

Ball says he’s occasionally conflicted about when to push the pace and when to execute plays, all while trying to distinguish between a good and a bad shot. “We have four plays,” he said, “and in my whole life, I never ran an offense. I just freelanced, fastbreak, pick-and-roll. So it’s a little different, and I think that’s why I feel I’m playing a little different than I normally do. Just thinking too much.”

And it’s not as if Ball doesn’t have other issues in his life. His new normal would not be wished on any rookie. Only hours after his brother and two UCLA teammates publicly apologized last Wednesday for the shoplifting incident in China, he appeared distracted and out of sorts against the Philadelphia 76ers, and watched the entire fourth quarter from the bench.

The hits just keep coming. Ball and his family were thrust back into the headlines yet again last weekend when LaVar minimized Trump’s role in securing the release of the three Bruins and earned a biting response from the White House. In a Sunday morning tweet, Trump complained that Lonzo’s father was “unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!”

Like Lonzo needs this? Like the Lakers need this? Team officials are at least mildly concerned. Coach Luke Walton recently met with Ball for what passes an informal pep talk.

“He’s got more on his plate than I can ever imagine anyone having, especially at his age,” Walton said. “I don’t know where it gets too much and how he reacts to it. It is our job to be here and let him know we support him and believe in him.”

Back on the court, any basketball-related discussion involving Ball is dominated by two elements: his transcendent passing/vision and a shooting touch that abandoned him when he left Westwood.

The shot is hardly a thing of beauty even when the ball drops cleanly into the net. It begins with a stepback dribble, continues with a sweeping, downward right-to-left arm motion, then a herky-jerky upward movement and over-the-left-eye release, with his right elbow jutting outward.

Reggie Miller, Jamaal Wilkes and Kevin Martin had similarly awkward shooting forms, but because they shot a high percentage, no one messed with their mechanics. Ball, who shot 40 percent from 3 at UCLA, has missed so badly at times that a retooling of his shot appears to be a foregone conclusion.

Interestingly, he is open to the idea. “I probably wouldn’t be comfortable changing it right now,” he said, “but that’s what the summer is for. We’ll talk about it then. There just isn’t time to work on it now.”

The Lakers’ 3-point shooting overall has been so poor, Walton is requiring every player who shoots 3s in a game to convert 100 daily for 30 consecutive days.

“We made up a contract,” he explained. “We printed them out. We had the players sign them. We’ll do that every day for 30 days and see how that impacts our percentage.”

Ball was not among the Lakers needing a nudge toward the practice facility, by the way. A relentless worker, he arrives early for practices and stays late, often engaging Kuzma in intense one-on-one contests. On many occasions he visits the gym in El Segundo in the wee hours and launches jumpers by the hundreds.

“My shot isn’t going, and the only way to fix it is to keep working on it,” he said while seated at the Lakers practice facility last week. “But it’s in my head, for sure. Usually when I play, I just shoot and don’t worry about whether it goes in or not. That’s not happening now.”

No, but his exquisite passing is something to behold. Even on nights he struggles, he throws lobs, quick-release baseball passes, crisp lookaway passes to cutters, with his height at 6-foot-6 enabling him to see over defenses and anticipate his teammates’ movements. And his shooting woes aside, any player who is such a willing passer is a beloved figure in the locker room. The fact Ball arrived at training camp without a trace of entitlement further endears him to his teammates.

“I was interested to see how he would react,” said Lakers reserve Andrew Bogut. “There is a lot going on. He’s a top-five pick. You’ve got the shoe company (Big Baller Brand). You’ve got the dad. You’ve got China now. He is soft spoken, doesn’t say much. I try to joke with ’Zo, try to get him out of his shell. On the court every point guard is banging into him, being really physical, trying to ‘big boy’ him. That’s something he has to adjust to. Once he figures it out, he will be fine. But it’s a lot of pressure for a young fellow.”

Ball, who pretends the cameras are invisible and doesn’t care for the constant attention, tries to block out the white noise. Some days he is more successful than others, he admits, and last week was difficult.

“It’s getting a little harder just because there are so many eyes on the NBA,” he said. “My brother, that was tough. I don’t know why he would do that. He’s going to have to live with it and rebuild his reputation. Unfortunately, you know, our family is really out there. It’s just … a lot of stuff.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin